EDINBURG — Guard Javon Levi and the UTRGV Vaqueros men’s basketball team will be looking to build on an impressive 2018-19 season and keep the program’s positive momentum rolling when they hit the hardwood at UTRGV Fieldhouse.
Levi — a Killeen product — has seen the Vaqueros program reach new heights in all of his seasons on campus, and he’s hoping he can help his team replicate that success now as a veteran leader instead of an underrated underclassman.
The junior guard exemplifies the team’s grit, toughness and physical style of play that helped it earn its 20-17 mark. To keep up that level of success and surpass it, he believes that he and his teammates need to up the toughness across the board.
“Yes, we definitely have to be tougher,” Levi said. “Not physical toughness, but being mentally tough is what (Coach) always preaches to us. Fight through adversity when we get down or if a call isn’t going our way, stay in the game mentally and come together. Toughness is a big key for us.”
“We were tough. We grinded and displayed all the adjectives that equal tough,” UTRGV head coach Lew Hill said. “We get into you, we try to wear you down and that’s what the team did last year. We were constantly just in your face, constantly grabbing, tugging and pushing, whatever it takes. That’s what we’ve got to do this year, but some of my guys’ mentality is not there yet, but it will be.”
During his first season at UTRGV, Levi and the Vaqueros advanced to the postseason, a big milestone for the group. They followed that up with a repeat trip to the postseason, but the junior believes his squad is ready to take the next step and capture the ultimate prize this year.
“We definitely want to win the WAC Championship and get a ticket to the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “We went to the CBI two years ago and the CIT last year, so we definitely want to take that next step and make it to the NCAA because that’s the ultimate goal. We’ve just got a lot of work to do.”
Levi, along with senior forward Lesley Varner and redshirt senior guard Jordan Jackson, lead an intriguing Vaqueros roster with a good mixture of returning talent and fresh faces.
Levi, Varner and Jackson all return as high-impact starters from last season and will have to step into big leadership roles at least in the early going as their new teammates become acquainted with the system.
“The three guys that started coming back have got to lead. When you’ve got three starters coming back, that’s really good. Some guys have no starters (back). When you’ve got three guys that started, they have to lead,” Hill said. “They’ve got to take this team over and have ownership in the team so that the younger guys can catch up. … They’ve got to do that until the new guys know what we’re doing and know we’re about, so it’s a good mixture.”
“We have a lot of new guys, so it’s just a learning experience for us all,” Varner said.
Levi enters the new campaign as the reigning Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year after a sophomore season in which he tallied 109 steals, which ranked second in the NCAA last year and second all-time in WAC history.
He thinks the key to his personal success is his team’s versatility defensively and ability to switch while playing UTRGV’s tough brand of defense.
“Our strength is our athleticism and our ability to switch. Multiple guys can guard multiple positions and I think that’s our strength defensively,” Levi said. “It keeps the other team guessing. They don’t know what we’re going to do defensively. We kind of throw different things at them defensively and I think we use that to our advantage.”
“It’s the same; that’s our DNA,” Hill said. “Our culture is pressure defense and unselfish play; that’s what we’re about.”
For Varner, who enters the season as the Vaqueros’ returning leading scorer (11.2 points per game) and rebounder (5.4), he enjoys how UTRGV’s smothering defense helps set he and teammates up for easy transition buckets.
“We have a lot of different lineups we can go toward. We can go small ball, we can go tall ball, we can go medium, etc. We can go a lot of different ways because of our athleticism and how versatile we are.”
Levi and Varner also noted that the team has been trying to break in a new offensive system since the summer, which both upperclassmen are excited about.
“Coach took some time to try to figure out what’s best for our team and our players and what fits us,” Levi said. “I think he really picked a system that fits us well, it’s just about us going out there and executing.”
“I think it’s coming along pretty well,” Varner said. We’ve been running it since the summer so it’s just kind of about picking it up.”
The Vaqueros will hit the court for their home opener against the Howard Payne University Yellow Jackets at 7 p.m. Monday at the UTRGV Fieldhouse in Edinburg.